“33 Variations” at Waukesha Civic Theatre

Please permit me a few minutes to get perhaps a little awkwardly real with you about 33 Variations by Moisés Kaufman, what it means to me as a performer in Waukesha Civic Theatre’s current production of the show, and what I believe shows like this offer our community:

The response we’ve received for this show is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I am fortunate and proud to be able to say I have been in many, many shows which were truly wonderful, and in which I took the utmost pride in their creation, their finished form, and the feedback they earned. That said, the response we’ve had to 33V is truly unique in my 20+ years on the stage. I have never experienced anything like this in terms of audience feedback, and I can say with total certainty that this is the best work I personally have ever done, and the strongest show I have ever been a part of.

WCT - 33 Variations - Septet

There is a lot of great art being produced in our local theatre community, and that has long been the case. You know what I’m talking about, because you’ve seen it, laughed with it, cried with it, sung along with it. You are a patron of the arts. I am a patron of the arts. And as patrons, as artists, as neighbors benefiting from what these theatres bring into our lives, we are so, so fortunate to have this access. (Sunset Playhouse and Waukesha Civic Theatre, in particular, will always have a home in my heart.)

And happily, within this social and cultural bounty there remains room for growth!

Today I would like to talk about an area I see as being particularly ripe for growth locally – a Theatrical Spring, if you will: Expanding our repertoire.

We appreciate that our theatres must produce shows that are likely to be good sellers. Healthy attendance keeps the theatres’ names in people’s minds, and it enables those theatres to keep the lights on. Many of us have been doing this long enough, and in a wide enough variety of venues, to know how easy it is to take unexpected financial hits even from shows we thought were sure-fire big sellers, but whose sales went south even in the presence of a truly high quality production. That is the nature of the business side of any venture, and we are not immune to market forces just because our “product” isn’t packaged with barcodes and sold on shelves.

With that in mind, two of the most common frustrations I hear voiced again and again regarding shows mounted within our community concern:
  1. The lack of new scripts (ie. scripts written within the last ten – even twenty! – years) that make it onto our stages.
  2. Shows that run the local circuit year after year, jumping from company to company to company, leaving one season looking very much like the next no matter whose playbill is in your lap when the lights flash for the two-minute warning.

33 Variations - Clara kissing KatherineSo when a community theatre takes a “risk” in the form of selecting a show like 33 Variations, for which it would be absurd to project high ticket sales (new script, first staging in the state, relatively unknown title, no child actors, difficult themes, (music but) not a musical…), it tells you a lot about what really matters to that theatre at the end of the day, and about the risks they’re willing to take to be able to create something new, to explore different ways of saying something meaningful, and to speak to the heart of the human condition in an as-yet unheard voice.

It is not your job, or mine, to balance the books for a theatre’s risks. You are not obligated to attend just to pat them on the back for making a bold choice, much as I am not obligated to speak out in gratitude for it. (Though make no mistake: I am grateful for their selection of this show, and it is my pleasure to speak up about it. To the WCT board I say: Thank you.) When seeing shows becomes an act of duty born from feelings of guilt or obligation, we begin to lose some of the magic that accompanies art for art’s sake. It becomes the book assigned for class, rather than the book sought, devoured, and shelved soft with all the love and wear of a lifetime of re-reading. The reader stands to gain something in both cases, but the lifelong impact is surely greater with the latter.

That said: Our frustrations (as artists and as patrons) with the sometimes limited scope of local theatre offerings are valid, and are heard loudest through what we choose to support with ticket sales, and follow-up discussion.

When we don’t show up when companies take those risks we claim we want to see, we reinforce the idea we don’t care as much as we say we do about doing new things; that new content doesn’t sell; that we’re content with the same scripts stage-hopping season after season; that deepening and broadening one’s artistic experiences is “for other people.”

Companies produce what sells. Non-profits especially so. If you want a different product, buy it when it becomes available. And right now? That “different product” is available for four more performances at Waukesha Civic. Friday and Saturday 3/24 and 3/25 at 7:30 pm, and Saturday and Sunday 3/25 and 3/26 at 2 pm. (Saturday at 2 pm is a pay-what-you-can performance.)

See you there!


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